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Beware: New ACT Changes Not as Beneficial as They Appear

Junior Rory Flint reads his hardcover textbook while junior Laura Romig reads it online. Studies suggest that – based only on the different reading platforms – Flint will likely comprehend the material better. Photo: Darren Rosing

One of the seemingly most important components of applying to American colleges is completing standardized tests. To satisfy this daunting prerequisite, students across the world pursue one of two paths: the SAT or ACT. On Oct. 8, the creators behind the ACT announced huge changes that will affect the testing experiences of all future ACT testers, possibly attracting more students to choose the ACT route. While the changes appear to be only positive and sound very appealing, students should be cautious of them. 

One of the biggest changes is the new option to take the test entirely online starting September 2020. The online test will only be administered at certified testing centers on official test dates, which occur just seven times throughout the year. The biggest appeal to online testing is that results should be available as early as two days after testing, whereas scores for the written test can take up to eight weeks. 

While the ACT states that “receiving scores more quickly may alleviate anxiety,” testing online may not be as beneficial to raising scores as it seems. An assistant professor of education at the University of North Dakota, Virginia Clinton, has conducted extensive research to determine whether people comprehend better by reading online or printed paper. Clinton concluded that “readers had better calibrated judgement of their performance from paper compared to screens.” Clinton’s 2019 assertion that reading print content provides a higher quality of understanding than digital reading does is corroborated by countless other studies. 

In 2012, Norway’s Anne Mangen studied 72 tenth grade students and deduced that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.” In 2013, the research of Leopoldina Fortunati and Jane Vincent suggests that “paper is more multi-sensorial and meta-communicative than using the… screen.” In 2017, a study by University of Maryland professors Lauren Singer and Patricia Alexander yielded similar findings. 

One of the largest studies on this matter is a 2018 meta-analysis by collaborating researchers from Spain’s University of Valencia and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. They gathered that digital literacy’s emphasis on speed and accessibility “encourages a shallower kind of processing that leads to a decrease in deep comprehension.” The study advocates for continued use of print reading, but still acknowledges the unfortunate demand to train students for an increasingly digital reading environment. 

While the research overwhelmingly suggests that students perform better on paper, ACT does offer a complete, free online practice test for potential online test-takers to see how they might score. Even with access to the online preview, though, there are still many faults with the digital platform. 

Megan Stubbendeck at ArborBridge claims that “the biggest problem at this point is that students taking the ACT online will have limited ability to annotate the test.” Stubbendeck demands answers to the following relevant questions: Can students annotate important lines in a reading passage? Can they work out math problems by hand and label geometric diagrams or will they have to do it all in their heads? Can they circle data points on a science graph? ACT has not given answers to these questions as of now. Regardless, these are all important concerns potential online testers must contemplate before saying goodbye to old-fashioned print assessments.

Another huge change to the ACT is the upcoming option to retake individual sections starting September 2020. The ACT test is divided into four sections: English, math, reading and science. After testers have completed a full test once, they will soon have the opportunity to improve their scores by retaking individual sections instead of whole tests. Students may take up to three section retests on any one test date, though there are no limits on the number of times a student may take a retest. 

Assistant State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tony Thacker defends this ACT alternative by suggesting “taking only one test completely eliminates any mental fatigue” students might experience when they take all four sections the same day. While his statement is certainly attractive to stressed ACT test takers, students should not be quick to jump at this new opportunity.

It is fairly unknown how colleges will respond to the single-section retesting opportunity. Multiple professionals have reacted to ACT’s announcement by suggesting “the new policy could also have the effect of inflating test scores,” as USA Today’s Chris Quintana proposes. To expose an applicant’s underlying attempts to obtain a high score, several top universities already require that applicants submit all past testing history. Some of these include Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Stanford, the entire University of California system, UPenn and Yale. It’s possible that as applicants are increasingly persuaded to continue improving their scores through retesting, more colleges will require all past testing history as well. 

Additionally, ACT has not yet released the prices for taking individual sections. Currently, a full-length ACT with the writing option costs $68. If more students decide to take section retests due to their availability, it is possible that ACT could unintentionally privilege wealthy testers who have the resources to retake sections over and over again until they are satisfied, leaving students without such resources at a disadvantage. 


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